17 October 2011
Last month, a Baylor University study may have solved the age old puzzle of why many Christians resist government attempts to help the disadvantaged with programs intended to help Americans who are down on their luck. According to the study, “one in five Americans combine a view of God as actively engaged in daily workings of the world with an economic conservative view that opposes government regulation and advocates the free market as a matter of faith.” In other words, the invisible hand of the free market is actually the hand of God.
It was Adam Smith who first used the term “invisible hand” to describe how the economy will correct itself if the government will only keep its interfering hand away. Prosperity and fairness for all come about when everyone acts in his or her own best interest without regard for the well-being of others. “By listening to the voice of self-interest and obeying the dictates of the free market,” Smith wrote, “we benefit the poor just as if the earth had been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.” For that reason, Smith was opposed to government regulation of business, and his ideas are regularly used and abused by factory owners and corporate executives to justify their mistreatment of both workers and the environment, and to condemn minimum wage laws and environmental regulations as offenses against their rights as owners.
If Smith was a pious man who believed that a loving, invisible hand would tend to the needs of the poorest and neediest among us, those that came after him to implement his ideas were not. Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists did not want to help the poor, they wanted the poor to die as maladjusted errors in the natural evolution of society. This is too much for the conscience of a good Christian. If there is an invisible hand, a person of faith will have to see it as the hand of God who will see to the needs of all his children if the government will only get out of the way. And if there is economic suffering in the world, it is not because of any injustice of the market itself, but because of interference by government working against the will of God.
This sets up a curious image: Jesus seated at a computer console, looking into a bank of monitors. He tweaks here and adjusts there as needed to make the economy benefit everyone. He implants in an Arab sheik’s mind the impulse to raise the price of oil, or he adds a bit of energy to inflationary forces to offset the evils of unemployment. All the while, His efforts are foiled by the unholy hand of government overriding His divine input, and poor Jesus can’t get a thing done because of those darn liberals.
It’s enough to drive a deity to drink.